Why Reread Books? The Pros and Cons of Rereading
Rereading is a guilty pleasure for many people. Patricia Meyer Spacks calls it a “sinful self-indulgence” in her book On Rereading (14). How can a dedicated reader abandon their “To Be Read” pile (TBR), full of new stories waiting to be discovered, and waste time with a book they already know? At the same time, the act of rereading has been heralded by academics throughout history as the only way to truly understand a text. When confronted by someone who has “read that book a dozen times,” the serious reader feels a twinge of inferiority.
An examination of the pros and cons of rereading should be undertaken to appreciate its worth and, perhaps, therefore to alleviate the uncomfortable feelings in either situation.
The Benefits of Rereading
Why reread? The answers are as numerous as the reasons for reading a book the first time, enjoyment chief among them. However, rereading can also give the reader a sense of comfort in the stability and unchanging nature of a story or nostalgia as it brings back beloved memories. It can even be a social experience when rereading a story to relate to someone reading it for their first time.
Academics most often discuss the benefit of rereading as a way to gain better understandings of complex texts and of the self.
Teachers of early reading-age children agree with foreign language teachers that rereading improves comprehension beyond basic words, to understanding what is happening, to appreciating details, and finally to taking analytic steps (Perez, Foreign). For adults, especially in the academic environment, rereading is indispensable to understanding a text well enough to build good critical arguments. This is so important that works of literature have occasionally been defined as such by their re-readability.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his Lectures On Literature,
“When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.”
Rereading is necessary to build a greater understanding of a text than can be accomplished on a first reading. Without rereading, it may be impossible to appreciate a writer’s more subtle talents or to comprehend a text’s intricate ideas and themes.
Understanding the Self
Rereading is also an act of self-reflection. Spacks writes, “The enterprise of purposeful rereading in itself creates a kind of self-consciousness” (242). Since the book itself never changes, it can function as a constant against which to measure the reader’s growth. Spacks explains, “The stability of reread books helps to create a solid sense of self….it records both the development and the continuity of the self” (4). Rereading, then, can be a way to re-examine the self and the changes it has undergone since the initial reading.
The Drawbacks of Rereading
However, there are possible drawbacks to rereading as well. Rereading is time consuming—drawing readers away from their TBR piles—and can be disappointing if a beloved book falls short of rosy memory. It can also be uncomfortable to re-examine oneself by rereading a book, to realize the changes you have undergone. Furthermore, some things may be lost in a rereading and increased comprehension is not necessarily assured.
The Gain-loss Phenomenon
David Galef proposes in his book Second Thoughts the Gain-Loss Phenomenon of rereading: the fact that some things can only be experienced in a first reading and are lost in subsequent ones. He writes, “The standard view is that rereading is an additive process, wherein we perceive more and more about a given work until we have internalized the very words. However, such continual review also dulls certain sensibilities” (Galef 18). Among these sensibilities are the effects of plot, such as suspense, and spontaneity (Galef 19). Emotions like pleasure, excitement, and curiosity cause the reader to rush through a story and pass over the subtle intricacies appreciated in re-readings, and yet they are also important elements that may be dulled by those subsequent readings.
Increase Familiarity ≠ Increased Comprehension
Furthermore, unless your rereading is focused and intentional about gaining new insights, rereading may not result in improving understanding. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press published an article in 2014 which criticized rereading as a study strategy since it “often involves a kind of unwitting self-deception, as growing familiarity with the text comes to feel like mastery of the material” (quoted Weimer). This applies to rereading literature as well. Someone who has read a book a dozen times may not have a more nuanced understanding of the text than someone who has only read it once or twice, but was intentional about gaining—and retaining—their understanding with each reading.
So why bother rereading if there are such drawbacks? It is important to keep in mind that Galef’s gain-loss phenomenon is different for each book and each reader. A mystery may lose suspense—or a short story’s twist ending, the element of surprise—but gain anticipation in a reread. While Galef points out that this is not necessarily an equitable exchange, the right reader may find it more enjoyable experiencing the story with the end in mind (19). William Faulkner’s works might be difficult to understand, even in a second or third (or even fourth) reading, but for the right reader that challenge is part of the entertainment.
There is inherent value in rereading, but that value is subjective. If choosing to reread to increase comprehension of subtler, complex artistry, be intentional about gaining more from a text than mere familiarity. If rereading for pleasure, keep in mind the elements of a story that give you joy, and be aware of which elements may be lost in a reread.
No reader should feel less accomplished because they neglect their TBR pile to reread a favorite or if they only reread once in a blue moon. Each has its own pleasures.
Foreign Language Teaching Methods. “Lesson 3: The Importance of Rereading.” Utexas. coerll.utexas.edu/methods/modules/reading/03/. Accessed on 7 Sept. 2016.
Galef, David. Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading. Wayne State University Press, 1998.
Perez, Samuel A. “Rereading to Enhance Text Understanding in the Secondary Classroom.” Reading Horizons, vol. 30, no. 1, 1989, scholarworks.wmich.edu/reading_horizons. Accessed on 7 Sept. 2016.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. On Rereading. Harvard University Press, 2013.
Weimer, Maryellen, PhD. “Is Rereading the Material a Good Study Strategy?” Faculty Focus, 14 May 2014, www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/rereading-material-good-study-strategy/. Accessed on 7 Sept. 2016.
Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Ernest Hemingway
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
Lectures On Literature by Vladimir Nabokov
Lectures to My Students by Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Making It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by P.C. Brown, H.L. Roediger III, and M. A. McDaniel (esp. chapters 1-2)
On Re-reading Novels by Virginia Woolf
On Stories: And Other Essays in Literature by C.S. Lewis
“On the Influence of Re-reading on Mind Wandering” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2015.1107109)
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love by Anne Fadiman
“Why Reread? Evidence from the garden-path and local coherence structures” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology (DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2016.1186200)
What do you think? Leave a comment.